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One of the first techniques we learn as photographers is how to expose an image. We practice finding the midtones of any given scene and adjusting our ISO, shutter speed and aperture to match. We pride ourselves on getting a perfect exposure on the first try, without any post processing adjustments.

But sometimes, a perfectly exposed image isn’t as perfect as it might seem. Especially if you’re shooting outside when the sun is bright, a perfectly exposed picture can sometimes result in a loss of detail. The texture of clouds can get blown out, leaving you with a barren, bright white spot in your image where a beautiful and detailed sky used to be. Or worse, a portrait of someone with very pale skin can lack important detail and texture if the picture is perfectly exposed. And once those details are gone, blown out, there’s no getting them back.

For this tutorial, forget everything you learned about the perfect exposure, and instead, start underexposing your images. Intentionally underexposing your images has a lot of benefits. It gives you more freedom to bump up your shutter speed or bump down your ISO, making it ideal for fast action photography and increasing overall image quality. Underexposing will also make the images easier to see on the camera’s LCD screen when you’re out shooting on those bright days.

Start by opening an underexposed image in Lightroom, and bump up the overall Exposure until the colors start to come through.

Click on the White Balance Selector, or the eyedropper tool, located next to the Color Tone sliders. Scroll over your image, and click on a neutral gray tone. This will automatically color correct the rest of your image. The colors probably won’t look perfect on the first try, so manually tweak the temperature and tint sliders. We’ll come back and tweak this again at the end of the tutorial, so don’t worry if the colors still look off.

Bumping up the overall Exposure probably blew out some of the brightest areas of the image. Bump down the Highlights slider to about -60 and bring up the Shadows to about +40. This will even out the levels of the picture, and will give you a more balanced image to work with.

The exposure should already look a little better, but the image will probably look pretty flat. Bring down the Whites all the way to -100 to even out your subject’s skin tone, and bump down the Blacks to about -15. You can also bring up the overall Exposure a little more if the picture is still on the darker side.

Now we’re going to add some depth to the image by going down to Tone Curve. Add two points to the bottom left half of the line. Drag the middle point down slightly, and you’ll see the top part of the line curve up in the opposite direction. This will bring more brightness into the highlights and more darkness into the shadows, increasing the overall contrast.

Once you increase the contrast, the colors will become much stronger, and you’ll have a better sense of if you need to tweak the color balance again. My image is too warm, so I’m bumping down the temperature to a bluer hue.

Click Y to see a side-by-side before and after view of your image. You should already notice a big change in the exposure and overall quality of the picture.

Go down to Sharpening and increase the Amount to about 75. Leave Radius at 1 and Detail at 25. Increase Masking to about 10. If you shot on a high ISO, your image will probably be grainy, and you’ll have to bump up the Luminance to smooth out the pixels. Increase Color to about 25 to blend any blown out shadows.

Then go down to Post-Crop Vignetting and decrease the Amount slightly and change the Midpoint to around 30. Increase Feature to about 75. This will darken the border of your image slightly and bring the focus more toward the center and your subject.

Now the background of my image looks pretty good, but my subject is still a little too dark. Click on the brush tool at the top of the editing panel. Use the bracket keys to change the size of the brush, and increase the exposure slightly. Start brushing over the highlighted areas of your subject to make your subject stand out from the background.

Click on Effect and select Soften Skin from the dropdown menu. Paint over the edges of the area you just dodged to blend the highlights with the shadows. This will help even out the skin tone.

Now we’re going to add even more brightness to the subject’s eyes. Zoom in until the eyes fill the screen. Create another brush, paint over the whites and bump up the exposure until the eyes look bright, but still natural.

At this point, you can go back in and tweak the general exposure settings. I bumped the Highlights down and the Shadows up even more, then increased Contrast to +15.

Finally, go down to HSL and adjust the individual Saturation sliders. Pull down the Orange and Yellow tabs slightly to bring some saturation out of the skin tones, giving your subject a more natural look.

Remember, these settings will vary from image to image, so play around with the sliders until you find what works for your picture. Now you can take these techniques and use them for any low-light image.

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